12. 30. 2008. 20:55

The sprinter and the relay race

Géza Ottlik (1912–1990)

In many crucial respects, Géza Ottlik differs from  the majority of the great figures of Hungarian literature. In his youth, he was a track-and-field runner; at university, he studied mathematics, and he could play bridge on a professional level. His Adventures in Card Play (written together with Hugh Kelsey) is considered as one of the greatest and most original books on bridge theory ever.

And he wrote very, very little, spectacularly little. As he stated himself, “even when not putting pen to paper, the writer is at work”.  These biographical facts pervade Ottlik’s literary artistry, and his personality as one. Moreover, these two aspects – the oeuvre and the personality, the accomplishments and the legend – are in Ottlik’s case one inseparable whole, creating an indestructible aura.
Ottlik, born into an old gentry family, was sent at the age of eleven to the Koszeg military school on Hungary’s western border. This school formed a decisive experience in Ottlik’s life: his masterpiece, The School at the Frontier, is, among many other things, his depiction, grasping the essence of this socializing milieu. His first writings were published at the beginning of the 1930s; one of the most significant periodicals for Hungarian literature of that century, Nyugat, printed one of his short stories. Ottlik was later as proud of this accomplishment as if he had won the 100 and 200 meter sprints in the Olympics. It was, however, only with this first qualifying round that he would reach the culminations of his later career. During the Second World War, he came to the assistance of the persecuted; hiding, in the darkest weeks of the war, his poet friend István Vas: they should have only been whispering, but instead they loudly debated the merits of Somerset Maugham’s novels. And in doing so, saved each other’s lives. After liberation, Ottlik threw himself with great enthusiasm into the literary life then newly emerging, publishing in magazines that saw their launch during the era (at this time publishing "Apagyi" as a separate short story, which later or perhaps even earlier became a part of the text of School at the Frontier), and working as well as a dramaturge for Hungarian Radio. After the seizure of power by the Communists in 1948, however, he withdrew, for all intents and purposes, into inner emigration. In this year, he requested that the printer return his manuscript entitled Survivors. Then, partially from necessity, he began his career as a translator, rendering into Hungarian (among others) Dickens, Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw.
The School at the Frontier, Ottlik’s most important work, appeared in 1959: a revolutionary novel, in more senses than one, presenting a unique epic paradigm. It is characteristic of its complexity in terms of genre that the aspect of the work depicting the life-world of the military academy can be read as a Bildungsroman, the heroes of which, in the course of the narrative, suffer continual defeat only to discover their own identities at the end. This, however, is only one reading that can be drawn from the contents of the novel. The School (as the novel is usually termed in Hungary) presents a complex literary case. Its essential theme has much more to do with the obdurate and systematic mental circlings of epistemological dilemmas, which the author names in the opening chapters of the novel as the difficulties of telling. How can an experience, lived in a particular moment in life, be rendered so as to share it with another? How can the sanctity of silence be depicted in language? How is it possible to understand another’s life-story? And through that understanding, to comprehend my own as well?
The form of the novel, if providing no answers to these questions, does make them perceptible through aesthetic means. There is no chief narrator in the story, as no single character is favoured over the others. Experience and narration are shared equally. At the centre of the narrative, three people (three children) stand within an indestructible relationship to each other: a relationship which does not disintegrate even if they do not meet, or even if one of them dies, for this something that is amongst them is “lesser than friendship, and more than love”. To a certain degree, Ottlik’s work prefigures the postmodern novel-within-the-novel. At the beginning of the narrative, Dani Szeredy and Benedek Both (nicknamed Bébé) learn that their recently deceased friend Medve had begun to write the story of the school years they experienced together. The manuscript ends up in the possession of the painter Bébé, who in the course of reading involuntarily begins to comment on the text, contributing his own memories, completing, correcting, adjusting – bringing forth with these amendments a new text. This procedure, however, is not meant to serve the perfidious game of self-reflecting narratives; it is not Ottlik’s intention to write a narrative of technical virtuosity. The structure of the novel thus allows for the mechanism of memory and the nature of fictionality to be presented dialectically, i.e. as elements affecting each other in their inferred mutual influence, reaching completion through the existential modality of the continuum and precision of time. Within the scope of a single page, decades pass, and one day spent within the school can take up thirty or forty pages. In this context, Ottlik’s work is a novel of linguistic philosophy, and linguistic criticism. Rather than writing abstract treatises about the communication of silence, Ottlik succeeds in inducing the nature of silence to be portrayed in words.
Beyond the genre-codes of the Bildungsroman and the essay-novel, one would have to speak as well of the atmosphere or, more grandly, of the philosophy of life that this novel suggests. “Our souls are filled with lightness, with delicate intoxications, with the gentle inebriation of freedom”.  It would be possible as well to conjure forth at length the liberating experience of “impossible solidarity”, the collective individualism of “ten thousand souls”; to say, finally, that “life is, all the same, a monumental affair”. These metaphors express on the one hand a certain solidarity with existence itself. They do not proclaim that life is good, but rather that life itself is, and it is precisely the copula-verb, that it is, which is the good. However, the same applies as well to the more risky contextual aspects of the novel as well. These segments of the text can easily be read as a series of edifying messages, abstracted from the tissue of the novel, and applied as one to life as a whole. In addition, these citations can be read as confirmations of ethical and aesthetic faith. And it is precisely this aspect of the novel that may well have given rise to that particular Ottlik cult (which went far beyond the figure of the writer himself), which in the previous regime was made to function as a political pronouncement, as the evidence of freedom, and as the demonstration of freedom’s own self-evidentiality.  It is perhaps precisely because such a figure as Péter Esterházy eulogized the School as the “radicalism of existence” that it is crucial for us to read Ottlik’s work not as an object of piety, but as a novel.
The epoch-forming nature of this novel can be caught out in the fact that it was precisely this book, and Ottlik himself, who bridged the gap between the prose-writers of the interwar period (in particular Dezso Kosztolányi) and the young generation that produced those epic works that began to appear in the Seventies: Péter Esterházy, Péter Lengyel, and the exceptional critic of that generation, Péter Balassa. This development had both a political and an aesthetic aspect. In terms of the poetics of prose, Ottlik’s literary art forms a link with Modernism. The new Hungarian prose of that era just then unfolding, one of the key elements of which was to be the postmodern literary epic, found in Ottlik its own paternal image. And clear political implications arose from this as well. In the person of Ottlik, a father was found, one who could be venerated and integrated. Ottlik detested every form of totalitarian and inhuman political ideologies, from the very depths of his being. He was an anti-Nazi and an anti-Communist, who was able to maintain his moral integrity for the whole of his life, and yet all the while remaining apart, a solitary player, to whom it was granted in his older years to be the centre point of a society even within his hermit-like seclusion.
The truest example of Ottlik veneration is perhaps the gesture of Péter Esterházy, who, in honor of the 70th birthday of his literary master, copied the entire text of The School at the Frontier onto a single piece of paper. Densely covered with letters, the sheet at once forms an unreadable text and an artistic configuration. At once a ritual patricide, and an altarpiece. This gift is as well an unconscious indication that Ottlik and his life’s work are identified as one with The School. Rooftops at Dawn, the novella published in 1957, two years before his chief work, the earlier version of which was already in manuscript form in the 1940s, as well as the large-scale novel (fragment) Buda, published three years after Ottlik’s death, both equally exist within the fictional universe of TheSchool. Similar characters appear, as well as references both anticipatory and retroactive; there are transitions between the texts: to understand the whole, however, it is necessary to be familiar with the entire narrative structure. If, indeed, that can even be known. Ottlik worked on the material for Buda for decades, unable to complete it before his death. More precisely put, he completed the text by dying. The posthumous publication created some controversy at the time, although today consensus exists that the writer Péter Lengyel, who was personally exceptionally close to Ottlik, and the editor of the critical edition of his works, did proceed correctly. In 1999, the novel-variation Survivors was published, which was the most original version of The School.
The final contours of Ottlik’s oeuvre are only being drawn now: this corpus of texts contains short prose-works, essays, studies, sketches of narratives, fragments of memoirs, working diaries, and carefully edited interviews as well, which appeared in the definitive volume entitled Prose, published in the 1980s, as well as in the similarly expressively titled Nothing’s Lost. The figures of the longer novels keep emerging in these volumes, figures of survival.
It is as if Ottlik created a fictional world in which there are parallel and perpendicular streets, decisive points of reference formed by events, and life-fates, running alongside each other or intersecting, but from which it is not possible to emerge. Or at least, the creator himself could not emerge. This epic world became ever more extensive. Newer and newer spheres and contexts opened up before Ottlik, who expressed in an interview his thought that writing is, strictly speaking, the profession of existence. Reading the works of Ottlik, we can all be a little more at home in our own existences.
Works by Ottlik in English translation:
The School at the Frontier. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966. Translated by Kathleen Szasz.
Buda. Corvina, 2004. Translated by John Batki.
"Logbook". In: A Hungarian Quartet, Corvina, 1991. Translated by John Batki.

János Szegő

Translated by: Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: Géza Ottlik